Monday, 24 February 2020
India’s nuclear doctrine: Stasis or dynamism?
India’s official nuclear doctrine, adopted by the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) on January 4, 2003, has an expansive intent of inflicting unacceptable retaliatory damage of levels characterized in the doctrine as ‘massive’ to any form of nuclear first use against India or its forces anywhere.The doctrinal tenet in full is: ‘Nuclear retaliation to a first strike will be massive and designed to inflict unacceptable damage.’The primary argument for this formulation is that India believes nuclear weapons are a ‘political instrument of deterrence.’Admittedly, the intent to go ‘massive’ in retaliation should ordinarily deter. As against this, the critique has it that the threat of retaliation at massive levelslacks credibility, particularly if the provocation for retaliation is of a lower order using tactical nuclear weapons (TNW). To buttress the critique, the usual illustration is intruding Indian forces being met by a Pakistani TNW attack. In light of Pakistan’s higher number of nuclear weapons, it could retaliate in kind. Critics have it that India would be hard put to follow through with its retaliatory intent as declared, as to do so would be disproportionate and escalatory.In light of continuing India-Pakistan hostility, this is no longer an unlikely scenario. The critique therefore requires a plausible doctrinal answer.
However, there has been no change in the official nuclear doctrine of India over the past decade and half. This is puzzling, reflecting as it does either a deficit in nuclear learning or that even as India’s declaratory nuclear doctrine remains stagnant overtly and nuclear doctrinal change hasbeen kept outside the open domain.Nuclear ambiguity has overtaken India’s nuclear doctrinal glasnost of the turn of the century. In this chapter, nuclear opacity notwithstanding, the finding is that India’s official nuclear doctrine of 2003 stands superseded by doctrinal innovation. There is apparentlya move towards a warfighting nuclear doctrine and posture, albeit one to cover the deterrence deficit identified. Since secrecy attends India’s operational doctrine, a definitive answer is precluded. This is reason enough to interrogate India’s nuclear doctrine.
The chapter tries to answer the questions: Has there been a change in India’s nuclear doctrine? If not, why not? If it has changed, why has not India changed its declaratory nuclear doctrine? The chapter is laid out in two parts. The first part takes a look through a ‘levels of analysis’ framework.Kenneth Waltz posited the ‘levels of analyses’ in his doctoral thesis on the causes of war, published as, Man, the State and War. He delineated three ‘images’: systemic or structural, dealing with the distribution of power among states; the nation-state or unit level; and lastly, that of the individual or decision maker. Following Graham Allison, this chapter posits an additional bureaucratic level between the unit and individual levels.
In the first part, a mini-case study on India’s ‘cold start’ doctrine – the army’s conventional war doctrine predicated on limited war theory–demonstrates how change can be viewed through the levels of analysis framework. The following sections look atimpetus to doctrinal change at the structural, state and institutional levels. The first deals with the global and regional threat environment; the second covers the developments in political and strategic culture; and the institutional level covers turf wars and parochial organizational interests.
In the second part, the chapter returns to the mini-case study on India’s cold start doctrine with an intent to see what separates doctrinal innovation from stagnation. The finding is that where drivers are present at all three levels, doctrinal innovation results. Absent driver(s) at any level doctrinal stagnation results. For a look for drivers the duration since Pokhran II is divided into three periods: the National Democratic Alliance’s (NDA’s) two stints in power (1998-2004 and 2014 onwards) and of the United Alliance (UPA) period (2004-2014). In the UPA period, the strategy of restraint at the political level prevented the UPA from acknowledging the change in nuclear doctrine, even as a divergence emerged between the declaratory nuclear doctrine and operational nuclear doctrine. Whereas the NDA II’s initial willingness to review the declaratory nuclear doctrine suggested that it could have acknowledged this shift, in the event it has not done so for fear of drawing attention to its nuclear posture at a time when it is getting closer to the United States (US) and Japan. The need to own up to the change is also not critical since it can easily be analytically arrived at, that change has indeed taken place and the declaratory doctrine is history.
The chapter arrives at the conclusion that India’s declaratory nuclear doctrine is implausible. Acknowledging the shift in owning up to an operational nuclear doctrine at variance with its declaratory doctrine is the need of the hour. Persisting with the declaratory doctrine does nothing to add to Indian security under peacetime conditions when deterrence is in play or in nuclear conflict when nuclear use is contemplated. India would do well to depart from its policy of stasis on nuclear doctrine and acknowledge the dynamism of its operational nuclear doctrine. This would help with firming up nuclear risk prevention and reduction measures, necessary to emplace in peacetime some assurance of escalatory control and de-escalation in conflict, especially since the two sides – India and Pakistan – rightly appear to contemplate limited nuclear war as better than devastating their mutual homeland, the subcontinent.
Part I –From doctrinal transparency to ambiguity
India’s official nuclear doctrine adopted by the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) in January 2003 largely adopted the draft nuclear doctrine put out by the National Security Advisory Board (NSAB) in August 1999 (NSAB 1999). In its summation of India’s nuclear doctrine, the CCS press release collated eight doctrinal precepts. These are: credible minimum deterrent; No First Use (NFU); ‘massive’ retaliation; command and control arrangements; negative security assurance; possibility of a nuclear counter to a major attack by other weapons of mass destruction(chemical and biological); adherence to nuclear non-proliferation tenets; and advocacy for a nuclear weapons free world). Not all of these doctrinal elements need mention in a doctrine, such as for instance approach to non-proliferation and elimination of nuclear weapons. In the main, the key tenets are NFU and the scope of nuclear use, whether higher order attacks or lower order. Higher order is defined here as counter value and lower order is restricted to counter military and limited counter force targeting. If retaliation is restricted to higher order nuclear use, then it is easier to maintain nuclear warhead numbers at a minimum.
Change can be along any of the precepts: abandoning minimum in the minimum credible deterrent; distancing from NFU; shifting from higher order nuclear attacks to also contemplating lower order attacks; moving from a reflective command and control status to a high alert one; withdrawal of or caveating negative security guarantees; excluding non-nuclear weapons of mass destruction as triggers for nuclear retaliation; and leaving out nuclear policy tenets from doctrine, such as approach to nuclear non-proliferation and elimination of nuclear weapons.
Though there are also other directions along which India’s nuclear doctrine is potentially liable to change, specifically, the NFUand arsenal size (minimal), this chapter limits its discussion to the levels of nuclear retaliation. These are currently pegged at ‘massive’ or higher order levels of nuclear attack. India believes nuclear weapons are political weapons and not for military use. Its nuclear doctrine is thus based on higher order nuclear retaliation, usually depicted as city busting. This puts a premium on the deterrence function of its nuclear arsenal. It retains the formulation of ‘massive’ retaliatory intent in its nuclear doctrine.
The levels of analysis framework
An illustrative case: Cold Start
Doctrine development, and in turn doctrinal change, is not confined to the military sphere. Doctrine is the foundation of decisions ranging from acquisitions of assets to deployment and employment of military resources. Consequently, to view impulses to doctrinal change, a look through the levels of analysis framework bears recompense. An illustration is in order.
The Indian army’s conventional war doctrine underwent a shift over this century. The conventional war doctrine dates to the inability of India’s strike corps to rise to the occasion when confronted with mobilization in wake of the terror attack on India’s parliament in December 2001. Their slowness off-the-blocks led to rethinking on readiness and an offensive addition to the conventional punch. The shift is better known colloquially as ‘Cold Start’, otherwise called ‘proactive operations’ doctrine. After a long while, ownership of the doctrine was admitted to by the Indian army chief, General Bipin Rawat, early in his tenure.
In the earlier land warfare doctrine the role of strike corps was one of undertaking countervailing deployments and counteroffensives. This was predicated on the Pakistanis being proactive in taking to the offensiveas part of their doctrine of offensive defence. However, the terror attack on parliament required India to be proactive in order todeter and suitably retaliate to Pakistani pro-activism at the sub-conventional level. The shift itself involved a transformation of ‘holding’ corps in a defensive, border-holding, role to ‘pivot’ corps, with offensive assets. Additionally, the strike corps would deploy ‘integrated battle groups’ to launch operations in an earlier timeframe. These are to create conditions for strike corps coup-de-main operations. This shift can be explained by a look through the levels of analysis framework.
Over the nineties, at the structural level, India’s threat perception was complicated by the resort to proxy war and terrorism by Pakistan. This was attributed to an ossification in India’s conventional deterrence. India therefore needed to refurbish its conventional deterrence. This it proceeded to do by building in, a readiness in itsoffensive formations for conventional retaliation in real time. At the next level is the ‘unit’ level. The principal movement at this level has been in India’s politics, the shift towards the right side of the political spectrum brought about by rise of cultural nationalism, espoused by India’s leading conservative party, the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP). The effect on national security has been in building in a turn to self-assertion - if not aggression - in strategic culture.This contrasts with the earlier question on whether India had a strategic culture at all. The nuclear tests at Pokhran in May 1998 are an example. The shift to cold start is an outcome of the hardening in strategic culture.
Peering within the ‘box’, at the institutional level is the military itself. The army had to come up with a doctrinal product of its own in face of doctrinal effervescence in the other two services. The air force had got off the doctrinal blocks early with its doctrine in the mid-nineties. The navy was also readying to launch a maritime doctrine. Affected by discussion on continuing utility of military force in the nuclear age, the army quickly staked out its role in conflict. Within the army, the extensive Kashmir engagement had brought to fore the infantry lobby riding on the counter insurgency commitment. The mechanized forces used the opportunity of Operation Parakram – the mobilization in wake of the attack on the parliament – to break out of their relegation by reworking the conventional doctrine.
Peering through the framework
This brief survey of change in Indian army’s conventional doctrine indicates scope for a similar analysis in relation to its nuclear doctrine. Upfront, the nuclear doctrine has not changed. However, the doctrinal debate has grappled with the challenge posed by Pakistani acquisition and advertisement of a TNW capability, it is inconceivable that the change and the debate has not influenced nuclear doctrine. This section attempts to discern if and to what extent has nuclear doctrine been affected.
The structural level
When India went overtly nuclear in 1998 it had cited the nuclear asymmetry with China and Chinese nexus with Pakistan as informing its decision. It has attempted to link its nuclear capability to the threat from China, as part of its de-hyphenation from Pakistan. However, adversarial relations with Pakistan ensure that Pakistan cannot be wished away. This is especially so because Pakistan has not abjured from first use of nuclear weapons and India’s reliance on conventional retaliation for deterring a sub-conventional threat by Pakistan.
Since both states abide by NFU, the significance of nuclear weapons in the India-China equation stands considerably receded. The two have a quarter-century long experience of managing their relationship through confidence building measures and agreements on managing the 4000 km long border. Their mutual stand down from a potential confrontation at Doklam, on the tri-junction of the India-China-Bhutan border, is a case in point. Not a single soldier has died on either side defending the border nor has a shot been fired either in panic or fear or anger, over the past fifty years since 1967, their last military confrontation was close to Doklam, at Nathula.
This is not the case with the India-Pakistan relationship. The two have not only fought a border war on the Kargil heights in 1999, but have been engaged in sub-conventional operations along the Line of Control (LC);within Kashmir;and, if Pakistani allegations are to be believed, in proxy wars within Afghanistan and in Pakistan. India stepped up its sub-conventional operations with the launch of trans-LC ‘surgical strikes’,responding to a terror attack in its Uri sector in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K).For its part, Pakistan denied the raids took place, reducing the onus on it to retaliate. The rocking of the unwritten ceasefire agreement along the LC that dates to 2003 is indicative of the escalatory dangers. These have been subsumed lately in India’s ‘two front war’ formulation, a conflict in which India sees itself hemmed in byits two collusive adversaries.
The usual scenario has a trajectory of events, sparked-off by a terror attack. Indiais depicted as launching cold start. Pakistan, fearing worse could follow, resorts to TNW(s). India’s nuclear doctrine posits massive nuclear retaliation. Pakistan,having taken care to build up its nuclear arsenal into three digits, appears to have enough nuclear ordnance to hurl back.To Khalid Kidwai, a former head of Pakistan’s Strategic Plans Division, this implies that South Asia is in its era of mutual assured destruction (MAD).The declaratory doctrine does not provide an adequate answer to this critique.Some strategists from the military school argue that this can be done by continuing with delivering unacceptable damage. Others have argued that going in for unacceptable damage may lead to self-deterrence in a situation of MAD.
One answer, attempted by the head of the National Security Advisory Board in 2013, was in insisting on the declaratory doctrine, arguing that there is no guarantee, the escalation would not reach such levels eventually.A former chief of India’s Strategic Forces Command(SFC) also favours status quo.In a recent book of reminiscences, former National Security Adviser, Shivshankar Menon, informs that India contemplated resort to first strike levels ofattack in case of Pakistani resort to TNW, and even when readying to do so in a pre-emptive mode.This suggests two lines of Indian response: status quo and change. There is a third possibility, of change in terms of proportionate response. A TNW attack could be met with requisite levels of retaliation, quid pro quo or quid pro quo plus.
Of the three options, the first two have an underside. Retaliating massively or with first strike imply a large arsenal, in order to ensure against like counter strike by Pakistan. The numbers of Indian warheads are marginally less than those of Pakistan. India is not markedly ahead of Pakistan in delivery capability in terms of missiles. It has advantages in air delivery and is working on a missile defence shield of dubitable efficacy. Thus,even first strike levels of nuclear ordnance cannot prevent a Pakistani counter of unacceptable proportions, enough to invoke self-deterrence in regard tohigher order nuclear retaliation. This would not be the case in relation to the third option: proportionate response. Having detonated three sub-kiloton warheads of the five explosions during Pokhran II, India has the warheads, and in its air vectors, the delivery capability. The option preserves against default escalation and, on that count, is credible.
India is hard put to acknowledge this logic since it provides Pakistan a window to go for nuclear first use with an assurance against escalation, debilitating Indian nuclear deterrence. The nuclear cloud putspaid to India’s conventional operations, depriving India of its conventional advantage. India would also be unable to deter Pakistanat the sub-conventional level. Thus, Indian deterrence would suffer across the three levels of conflict: nuclear, conventional and sub-conventional. India requires denying Pakistan any sense of impunity. At the structural level, the unwillingness to incentivize Pakistani TNW use accounts for India’s reticence in acknowledging doctrinal change.
The structural explanation intermeshes with the political level (more in the following section). Besides, induction of TNW into the arsenal negates the ‘minimum’tenet.Since it has two nuclear armed adversaries to cater for, one reckoninghas it that India needs 600 strategic nuclear weapons and 300 TNWs.The elasticity is permitted by India’s argument that weapons numbers are contingent on those of its two adversaries. Paying lip service to minimum is required for political reasons to depict India as a responsible nuclear power not engaging in an arms race. Therefore, even if India has the wherewithal for proportionate response for structural reasons, it cannot own up to this for political reasons at the next level.
The political level
Over the past thirty years the primary political shift in India has been towards the right side of the political spectrum. The conservative party, the BJP, representing cultural nationalism, strode onto the national stage, beginning with the demolition of the Babri Masjid in the early nineties. It has since led the coalition in power between 1998 and 2004 and is currently the ruling party with a majority in parliament, a first for some three decades. In its first stint in power in 1996 - that lasted for 13 days - it had authorized the nuclear tests. When in power next at the head of the NDA coalition, it conducted the nuclear tests in May 1998. The nuclear doctrine had NDA imprimatur. It was also in the BJP-led NDA term in 1998-2004 that the cold start doctrine was conceptualized, though released early in the tenure of its successor UPA government. Other influences such as steady economic growth, increasing political salience of the middle class and influence of the influential diaspora have also been incidental.
These factors haveaffected India’s strategic culture. Under their cumulative influence, Indian strategic culture has shifted from being defensive and reactive to self-regarding assertion. India’s national power indices have grown in the period. Its military investment has steadily increased, with itsbudget expanding on higher growth rates. Correspondingly,India’s strategic doctrine – approach to the use of force – has shifted towards the offensive segment, with strategic doctrine imagined as located along an appeasing-defensive-deterrent, offensive-compellence continuum.
The term ‘massive’ in the doctrine was a step ahead of the formulation in the draft nuclear doctrine that restricted such retaliation to being of sufficient levels to cause unacceptable damage.The official doctrine, adopted in January 2003 in the immediate wake of ending of Operation Parakram, incorporated the term for political messaging directed at Pakistan. An Indian analyst suggests its political origin and political utility, implying that it isnot quite a strategic yardstick.
With a self-image of a regional power and an aspiring great power, India does not prefer to be boxed in with Pakistan into South Asian confines. Pakistan’s going in for TNWs implies asymmetric escalation. This is to extend nuclear deterrence to cover the conventional level, as part of ‘full spectrum deterrence’. India in rebound projects disdain, relying instead on escalatory nuclear retaliation. It has simultaneously taken care to configure its conventional doctrine to be limited war compliant, cognizant of possible nuclear thresholds. This would put the onus of nuclear escalation onto Pakistan, seemingly legitimizing an Indian counter strike of an overwhelming order. India believes it would survive owing to its size, governmental reach and national coherence. Pakistan lacks depth and taking out a few cities could set it back inordinately.
India hopes to release itself from Pakistani shackles thus, but disregards the vulnerability of India’s economic rise to counter retaliation. India gambles on its evolving missile shield, at a minimum to cover its economic and political hub centers, Mumbai and Delhi respectively. To cope with a nuclear exchange aftermath, it also has the National Disaster Response Force, a vast central police and a paramilitary reserve, to include the army’s Rashtriya Rifles and Assam Rifles. This provides the reassurance to India to continue with an unchanged nuclear doctrine, in seeming disregard to the advent of MAD.
As regards China, India has over the past decade been conventionally minded, creating the border infrastructure and raising mountain divisions. Two mountain divisions in a defensive role and one mountain strike corps of two divisions and armoured brigades are in place. It is not reliant on nuclear weapons.But it needs to stare down China’s Rocket Forces, elements of which are deployed close to India’s heartland, on the Tibetan plateau. India is ensuring a second strikecapability based on nuclear armed submarines, long range missiles,multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles, and thermonuclear warheads.In the context of India’s nuclear direction of holding Chinese cities on its eastern seaboard hostage, ‘massive’ is not inapt. It has political dividend in enabling India to play in its preferredleague, equated with China.
Though, the nuclear doctrine dates to the last NDA stint in government, the continuity in its nuclear doctrine through the UPA period, calls for an explanation. The UPA was apprehensive of being outflanked by the BJP on security issues. It felt vulnerable to BJP’s charge of being ‘soft’ on security and - unwilling to pay an electoral price for this - was continually looking over its shoulder on security issues. Under the UPA, the military firmed up the cold start doctrine through successive large scale military exercises. Riding on a high Gross Domestic Product, the defence budget expanded, enabling acquisitions to operationalize the doctrine such as filling of voids in night fighting capability of mechanized forces. Even so, the UPA was unable to follow through with cold start when faced with the 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks. The reason was that the makeover was not quite complete.
On the nuclear doctrinal front, the UPA weighed in for declaratory continuity, keeping a lid on the military’s thrust for operationalization. Even so, India’s SFC evolved on its watch. Its successive chiefs on demitting office have been voluble on the direction of the military deterrent. In its second five years, the UPA IIreeled from political setbacks. Though the Pakistanis demonstrated their TNW capability the government did not undertake a review. The thinking within the National Security Council Secretariat (NSCS)was voiced by Shyam Saran and Shivshankar Menon. The Naresh Chandra Task Force deliberations - did not cover the nuclear gamut, eventhough Naresh Chandra, a former bureaucrat, was intimately associated with the development of India’s nuclear deterrent. The task force did not go beyond recommending a permanent chairman for the chiefs of staff committee, the military superior of the head of the SFC.Since the National Security Adviser (NSA) is also in the reporting line and is charged with the operational side as head of the executive council of the National Security Council, it is unclear if the military reporting channel of the SFC is only for administrative matters. The last nuclear related initiative of the Manmohan Singh government was a proposal for an international norm on NFU. The internal political angle to this is that it was a last-ditch attempt to bolster the NFU under threat from within Indian strategic community. In the political context of 2014 it was feared that the NDA could return to power and had an agenda to review India’s nuclear doctrine, beginning with jettisoning NFU.
As apprehended the NDA did return to power, promising a doctrinal change. The BJP manifesto for the 2014 elections referred to the BJP intent to review the nuclear doctrine. In the event, the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi, when on the campaign trail, put a lid on the controversy. He feared it would impact the BJP’s developmental plank, opining that the nuclear ‘cultural inheritance’ would hold. The aim was to reassure prospective economic partners in development and strategic partners such as Japan and the US. Consequently, India retains its official nuclear doctrine despite developments in the strategic environment and nuclear weapons field that suggest an operational nuclear doctrine could well be different.
The institutional level
There are three significant lobbies at play: the scientific enclave; the national security bureaucracy and the military. Political decision makers are notable for their absence; the hurly burly of Indian politics keeping them away for most part and their interests seldom including national security. The bureaucrats see their role as balancers and facilitators. It is not known to what extent the prickly relationship between the lobbies has been ironed out with the evolution of the national security bureaucracy.
The scientific lobby is required to furnish the technology for operationalising the doctrine. Between the two possible demands on it – conferring a capability for inflicting unacceptable damage versus enabling warfighting at lower order levels of nuclear exchanges – the scientific lobby may find the former easier to deliver. The latter involves intricacy in command and control; miniaturization; and multiple delivery means including short range missiles and air power. This is alongside a capability for higher order exchanges. Consequently, the scientific lobby is engaged with every dimension of nuclear weapons related technology. The level of its grasp over each is however debatable since it is often criticized for promising more than it delivers. Its concern with ‘turf’ springs from prospects of empire building; increased budgets; a relative salience in decision making; access to decision makers; and engagement with emerging technologies. Externally, technology demonstrators help politically burnishing India’s great power aspirations, and, internally bring political dividends for technologists in terms of bureaucratic salience. An infamous instance is in its claim that one of the Pokhran II tests was of the hydrogen bomb, revealed later to be a fizzle.
There is also a controller-custodian divergence in the Indian system, in which, while the custodian is the military, the controller is civilian. The technologists would prefer the de-mated format of Indian readiness, with the warheads kept separate from delivery systems. This suggests that the scientific lobby would be in favour of stasis in nuclear doctrine, even as it forges ahead with operationalisation of a variegated nuclear capability. This plausibly accounts for continuity in declaratory doctrine and, alongside, caters for the possibility of a divergence in operational doctrine.
For its part, the military would prefer operationalisation of a doctrine cognizant of the conventional dimension and insists on effectiveness of the weapon systems.Civil-military relations have affected the pace of operationalisation of India’s nuclear deterrent by keeping the military out of the loop.The military’s conventional role impacts nuclearisation by way of two connotations. One is to thrust upwards the low nuclear threshold projected by Pakistan so as to create the space for conventional retribution. The second is the military’s push for operationalisation of the deterrent and variegation of the nuclear capability is largely to provide options for the decision maker. Scope for declaratory doctrine being distinct from operational doctrine exists. Absence of change in the declaratory doctrine does not imply operational status-quo.
Bureaucratic politics can be expected in the national security establishment vested with nuclear thinking. The pulls and pressures of institutions in the nuclear field require arbitration, enabling bureaucratic intervention, if not usurpation of the field. Bureaucrats self-selecting to be national security minders have carved out a significant role,intervening between the technologists and the military on the one hand and the political level on the other. Their mastery of governmental processes, in particular financing of projects, accounts for their power. The influence of the bureaucrats is non-trivial. An illustration of their being at the apex of the policy loop is the case of the national security adviser cum principal secretary, Brajesh Mishra, attempting to adjudicate on the controversy within the scientific community on whether the hydrogen bomb test was a dud.K Subrahmanyam, a bureaucrat, who had self-selected to study national security issues in the sixties and the nuclear aspect in particular was the head of the NSAB which drafted the 1999 nuclear doctrine.
The national security bureaucrats then at the helm of the NSCS included the controversial term ‘massive’. Since a change would imply reversion to the 1999 formulation and amount to an acknowledgement of a gaffe, there is an incentive to stick with the phrase. Also, most of the people working on nuclear doctrine have been influenced by Subrahmanyam, since he was the long standing doyen of the strategic community. Subrahmanyam was for counter value targeting in order to ensure that numbers remained at a minimum and to accentuate the political aspect. The inflection ‘massive’ appearsan overenthusiasm, meant for overawing Pakistan.
Such errors recur too often for comfort that deterrence is in safe hands.‘Massive’ retaliation is promised in response to ‘first strike’. The drafters apparently meant ‘first use’, not ‘first strike’. ‘Massive’ is itself a misapplied lift from the US doctrine of early cold war vintage, massive retaliation. While India wishes others to believe its NFU pledge, in the draft nuclear doctrine, NFU was qualified by, and confused with, the negative security guarantee. NFU was not taken as applicable for states aligned to the state that resorted to nuclear first use. This phrasing was deleted from the 2003 official doctrine.
Nevertheless, confusion between NFU and negative security guarantees continued. The NFU is a guarantee to states with nuclear capability and the ability to resort to nuclear first use should they so choose. On the other hand, negative security guarantees are applicable to non-nuclear states. To the NFU policy, the official doctrine quite unnecessarily added: ‘Non-use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states.’ Further, it ended up introducing another caveat to its NFU pledge, this time over major attack by the other two weapons of mass destruction.At the golden jubilee of theNational Defence College in 2010, the otherwise erudite NSA, Shivshankar Menon, made a gratuitous error in referring to NFU as, ‘no first use against non-nuclear weapon states’.
A self-awareness perhaps accounts for lack of bureaucratic confidence in taking doctrinal thinking further. This explains why the doctrinal field at the conventional level is left wholly to the military. The joint doctrine of the armed forces, released in April 2017, also appears to be a unilateral work of the military. By staying out, of what they consider military turf at the conventional level, the bureaucrats have appropriated the nuclear level and kept the military out. This is reinforced by the well-known antipathy between the bureaucrats and the brass. The bureaucrats would unlikely weigh-in easily in favour of operationalisation that gives the military control and, with it, greater institutional power.
Even in case of operationalisation, the chain of command continues to vest with the bureaucrats. Militaries report to elected civilian heads, not to bureaucrats. The current command and control arrangement has the military head of the SFC reporting to both the NSA and the Chairman Chiefs of Staff Committee (COSC). The latter is double-hatted as the head of his service and, privileging his service, ordinarily has little time for his additional role. There is no support staff within the Headquarters Integrated Defence Staff - that serve the COSC - having a nuclear decision-making support role. The headquarters SFC cannot substitute for this since it would amount to writing out their own orders. In contrast, the NSA has a strategic and defence division in the NSCS for support. Thus, an inexplicable situation arises in which the uniformed SFC ends up taking his primary cue not from his uniformed superior, the Chairman COSC, but from the NSA, a bureaucrat with histenure co-extensive with that of the prime ministerwho appoints him.
Any doctrinal shift towards proportionate response would involve a greater military engagement with the conflict strategy and, in turn, nuclear strategy. This would entail reworking the command and control arrangements for greater inclusivity of the military. The war strategy, military strategy and the nuclear strategy need being intertwined. This perhaps accounts for a command and control arrangement unsustainable in organizational theory and military culture. Declaratory stasis therefore overshadows the dynamism in operational nuclear doctrine.
Part II – Innovation versus stagnation
Explaining doctrinal change
The illustration of cold start in the last part brings out thatfactors for change (or status quo)in India’s nuclear doctrine can be located at all three levels. It can be said that the primary impetus is difficult to discern. Instead, factors at all three levels appear complementary and responsible for doctrinal change or otherwise. To find out the relative salience of the factors, a reversion to the mini-case study on cold start is in order.
Cold startand drivers of doctrinal change
The antecedents of the cold start doctrine can be traced to the 1971 War. The duration elapsed since then can be divided as follows. First is the period of operation of the ‘Indira doctrine’that includes the regimes of Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi; second is the coalition governments of the nineties; third is the onset of cultural nationalism in the NDA I period; fourth, the UPA decade; and finally the ongoing NDA II period. The periods are contrasted in respect of innovation and vice-versa in doctrinal thinking in the conventional sphere.
The period of the Indira doctrine – India’s Monroe doctrine - was one of doctrinal innovation. The army shifted to mechanization. The second period,covering the nineties,witnessed India being bogged down in counter insurgency operations, resulting in ossification of its conventional deterrent based on unwieldy strike corps. The following period - NDA I - was one of doctrinal innovation in India forging a limited war doctrine. In the UPA period, doctrinal dissonance prevailed, since the military continued down the cold start path, putting it at odds with the strategic doctrine of strategic restraint. The NDA II period is one of doctrinal innovation, with the army taking public ownership of cold start and introducing aggression such as trans-LC surgical strikes.
In periods of doctrinal innovation, it is seen that factors at the three levels – structural, political and organizational – are in operation. In the Indira-Rajiv period, at the structural level,the twinned nuclear and sub-conventional threat from Pakistan, led to India leveraging its conventional advantage through a shift to mechanisation. The Indira doctrine shifted Indian strategic culture away from Nehruvianism of the preceding era. The Pokhran I nuclear test; viewing the Indian Ocean as an Indian lake; intervention in Sri Lanka, etc. are expressions, and evidence, of this.Organisational impetus to doctrinal change was provided by the dynamism injected by the likes of the thinking general, K. Sundarji.
Likewise, in the period of innovation under the NDA I, drivers at the three levels can be seen at work and in sync. At the structural level, the threat from Pakistan peaked in the Kargil War and terrorist provocation under nuclear conditions thereafter. At the political level, strategic culture was impacted by changes in politics brought on by mainstreaming of cultural nationalism. At the organizational level, coping with the new nuclear reality and stepped-up inter-Services competition over changes in the character of war brought on by the Revolution in Military Affairs, led to articulation of doctrines by all three services.
Conversely, doctrinal stagnation is a product of lack of impetus at any level – structural, political or organizational. For instance, if there is lack of threat, there is little incentive to innovate. At the political level, the strategic culture must be receptive to change. This may not be so in case of weak polities. At organizational level, stagnation can result from complacency, lack of budgets, concentration in non-core areas and absence of doctrinal entrepreneurs.
In the case of India, in the two periods – the coalition era of the nineties and the UPA decade – there was a lack of a driver at some levels. In the nineties, the political level exhibited a deficit in political cohesion, while at the organizational levelthe army privileged a counter insurgency focus. This led to doctrinal stasis. In the nineties, forceful articulation of a critique on India’s lack of strategic culture was witnessed giving rise to an aggressive inflection in strategic culture over the succeeding NDA I period. In the second instance of doctrinal stagnation –the UPA decade - the threat at the structural level was dormant. India was engaged in the composite dialogue and there was a ‘healing touch’operational in J&K. At the political level, the inflexion of cultural nationalism accounting for aggression in strategic culture was reined in, by a strategic doctrine of strategic restraint. At the organizational level, while cold start firmed in, it remained without imprimatur and unacknowledged. The survey above suggests that in case drivers are deficient or absent at any one or more of the three levels, doctrinal stagnation results.
The nuclear doctrine: Innovation or stagnation?
As with cold start above, a periodization for examining nuclear doctrine can be briefly done beginning with India’s nuclear quest dating to the mid-sixties. This line of inquiry is in the tradition of Scott Sagan’s work. Scott Sagan identified three ‘models’ as to why states build or refrain from nuclear weapons: the ‘security’ model is self-explanatory, and is useful as justification or rationalization; the ‘domestic politics’ model, in which nuclear weapons are tools used to advance parochial political and bureaucratic interests; and the ‘norms’ model, in which pursuit of the nuclear program is an important symbol of a state’s modernity and identity.Sagan’s first – security - model is located at the structural level; his second – domestic politics –encompasses the political and organizational level, rooted as it is in political culture and bureaucratic politics; and the third – the norms model – is equivalent to the political level.
The Chinese nuclear test in October 1964 concentrated minds and commentary on whether India could and should go nuclear. The next highpoint is in 1974 when in wake of the Pokhran I nuclear test, the debate centered on whether India should go nuclear. The debate continued in the late eighties informed by reported developments in relation to Pakistani acquisition of nuclear weapons.The discourse was not only on advisability ofgoing nuclear, but also reflected on a putative nuclear doctrine predicated on a small nuclear arsenal. Naturally, in light of low numbers of warheads and limited technology of delivery, the doctrine was predicated on counter value targeting.India’s political aversion to nuclear weapons and conventional advantages led to NFU acquiring the status as a doctrinal pillar in this incipient nuclear doctrinal thinking.
In the early part of NDA I, Pokhran IIcompelled the articulation of a doctrine. The Kargil War impelled its articulation by the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group of the NSAB in 1999 that was in 2003 adopted by the government. Though the driver of India’s nuclearization was projected as the long term threat from China, the key factor at the structural level was the threat from Pakistan. Pakistan had taken recourse to proxy war under cover of its going nuclear in late eighties. India’s nuclear breakout was to reposition India as an indubitable power with nuclear weapons, shaking it away from its earlier position of non-weaponized ‘recessed deterrence’, a term its votary in the period, Jasjit Singh, used to rationalize against going overtly nuclear. The NFU was privileged to project India as a reluctant nuclear adherent and, in light of the NFUa ‘retaliation only’ strategy was predicated on higher order targeting. The heightening of the Pakistani threat over the NDA term - that witnessed a near year-long standoff with Pakistan with the military fully mobilized - led to a hardening of the promise of higher order nuclear retaliation reflected in the term, massive. Implicit was a preference for a ‘minimum’ deterrent, reliant on a small nuclear arsenal,in keeping with India’s dismissive attitude to cold war nuclear theology and its characteristic, the arms race. The political level witnessed the advent of cultural nationalism into political respectability, impacting in the form of an assertive strategic culture. At the organizational level, the three services were keenly positioning for custody of the nuclear deterrent. The 2003 doctrine empowered the military to raise the SFC and gain joint control over the nuclear assetswith the technologists.
The UPA years were of continuity. At the structural level, there was an opening to Pakistan,a legacy of the NDA I period. The UPA was also lobbying for a nuclear deal with the US and wanting to get into the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group. This necessitated being reticent and not drawing attention to nuclear developments. At the organizational level, there was considerable development in regard to the NSCS and the SFC, and, likewise, on the technological front. The strategic doctrine of restraint was the tool used to police the two. Prodded by India’s continuing firming up of the cold start doctrine, Pakistan went on to introduce TNW into its arsenal. Though this put India’s declaratory doctrine under scan and nuclear operationalization enabled a shift, the UPA did not budge. Karnad characterizes this as ‘confusion’ and the government ‘seriously conflicted’ between idealism and strategic imperatives.
The NDA II period has seen the structural level factor - threat perception - resurface with a dive in India-Pakistan relations. The political level has witnessed the ‘Doval doctrine’, named after the NSA, with strategic assertion at its core.At the organizational level, the military has been at the forefront with public articulation of national concerns such as the army chief’s ‘two and half front war’ formulation. In short, the dynamism in the drivers at the three levels suggests a fertile period for doctrinal innovation. However, that the declaratory nuclear doctrine remains static needs explaining. This can be attributed to Mr. Modi, then prime ministerial candidate, putting a lid on the thrust in the strategic discourse for a change in nuclear doctrine calling it a ‘cultural inheritance’. The thrustline has mainly been on rethinking NFU. The doctrinal reticence regarding arsenal variegation needs an accounting.
The brakes are applied at the political level. India wishes to be in the big league. The global power equations are witnessing a tryst between a hyper-power, the US, and an emerging power, China. India is leaning towards the US, given its proximity with China and the border dispute. Wary of provoking Chinese counter containment, India is nevertheless in strategic relationships with balancing powers, the US and Japan. Neither wishes to see India proactive on the nuclear front, doctrinally. India also does not want its nuclear doctrine to be seen as responsive to Pakistani provocations, preferring declaratory continuity to obfuscate over the changed reality. Therefore, India’s reticence cannot be read as doctrinal stagnation. The stasis depicted by declaratory doctrine is to serve as fig leaf for closed-domain doctrinal innovation.
India’s tryst with nuclear doctrine started off on the right note. Transparency was the watchword, the deterrence value being in the communication of a determination and intent to the adversaries. India was also under pressure to indicate its position on nuclear weapons use after it went nuclear in May 1998. By coming out with a doctrine predicated on NFU and assured retaliation, India hoped to put Pakistan on the back foot. Pakistan wanted to extend its nuclear cover to the conventional level and could not match India’s NFU. In the event, Pakistan chose nuclear ambiguity, preferring not to state its doctrine. From its doctrine related pronouncements and technology developments,Pakistan has a first use doctrine and a low threshold. This has complicated India’s declaratory nuclear doctrine in that it cannot credibly continue to project that it would retaliate with higher order strikes to any form of nuclear first use against it. Despite this conundrum, India has chosen to stick with its declaratory doctrine. Its technological developments suggest that it has other options. This brings to fore the possibility that even if declaratory nuclear doctrine is unchanged, the operational nuclear doctrine diverges.
This chapter has shown that there are drivers for change and also that there are present factors favouring retention of declaratory doctrine, but only as a cover for such change. At the structural level, India wishes to use its conventional advantage. The best cover for this is not an incredible declaratory doctrine, but an operational doctrine countenancing flexibility. The political level cannot but be cognizant of the MAD situation prevailing in the subcontinent. Consequently, self-deterrence will stay the nuclear hand. At the organizational level, the technological developments have expanded retaliation options. The conclusion here is that India’s declaratory doctrine is no longer applicable. India has a different operational doctrine that it must own up to.
Nuclear opacity provides cover but not security. The gains of transparency have been made in projecting India as a responsible nuclear power. It has not forced Pakistan to follow suit with adoption of an overt nuclear doctrine of its own. Ambiguity has a deterrent function in that Pakistan cannot be sure of India’s nuclear actions. The constant sniping at NFU within India and indication that India even considered first strike as an option informs of Indian options kept open. Pakistan’s nuclear stance, based on TNW, is thus put on notice. It enables space to India for its cold start operations. In so far as these deter sub-conventional level adventurism by Pakistan – visible in the absence of mega terror attacks for the past decade –the doctrinal shift is strategically sustainable.
However, since terror can yet act as trigger for eventual nuclear exchange(s), the two sides remain insecure. The new nuclear doctrine must acknowledge the MAD circumstance. Security entails doctrinal exchanges and creation of a nuclear conflict management mechanism. The mandate would be to enable mutual escalation control and de-escalation in case of a conflict gone nuclear. The first step towards this is for India to jettison its declaratory doctrine. Its replacement must enable entering into a tacit arrangement with Pakistan that can bring about immediate nuclear exchange termination and early conflict termination.
The author is grateful to a former colleague for comments on the draft of this chapter.
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